Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ending the Reading Slump of Fall 2010

Reading slumps are never fun, and mine, which has lasted for a month or so, depending on how you count, has been doubly enervating because it’s covered a series of Russian and English books that didn’t inspire me much. Even the bright spots – Vladimir Voinovich’s Moscow 2042 and Theodore Odrach’s Wave of Terror – have asterisks. The funny Moscow 2042 (which I wrote about on my other blog) is a reread so hardly qualifies as a discovery, and Wave of Terror (see below), though intriguing, is an unfinished book.

I’m hoping the last book in my English-language slowdown was Douglas Kennedy’s The Pursuit of Happiness, a love story set in New York after World War 2. When I say “love story,” I mean “love story”: this is 572 pages of loving, losing, and forgiving. Basic plot: Sara Smythe, a WASPy Bryn Mawr grad enjoys a passionate night with Jack Malone, a Catholic guy from Brooklyn. It’s only one night because Malone, who’s in the service, is sailing for Europe the next morning. We know they’ll get back together… but in the meantime, Sara’s time spent with her brother Eric, a comedy writer and former communist, was more interesting to read about than her scenes with Jack.

Eric’s former political leanings lead to difficulties during the McCarthy era and give the book a center of gravity but Pursuit still felt, to quote an Amazon review from G. Johnson “friendlygal,” like “escapist reading rather than literature.” I agree with that, and I agree with her assessment that the book is repetitive: physical and psychological action is fairly limited for 500-plus pages but there is copious [read: often extraneous] atmospheric detail of ‘40s and ‘50s New York. Worse, the plot’s dependence on OB/GYN crises (which I had a knack for predicting) wore on me and the characters felt undeveloped enough that I never grasped Sara’s attraction to Jack.

I don’t mean to sound grumpy, particularly because the book read easily and I did finish it: it had enough spirit of its time to keep me going, and I thought Kennedy handled many of the McCarthyism and HUAC situations fairly well. My bookseller told me The Pursuit of Happiness sold big in France, and I’m sure its portrayal of post-war mores and panoramic view of New York are factors. In a talk at the bookstore, Kennedy also mentioned parallels between HUAC and France’s war-time collaboration as a reason the book was successful in France. Though The Pursuit of Happiness falls into the “this just isn’t my book” category, I’d recommend it to readers looking for a period romance with some serious history. Clear language may make Pursuit appealing to ESL readers.

Theodore Odrach’s Wave of Terror, translated from the Ukrainian (Voshchad) by the author’s daughter, Erma, also looks at political changes, informants, and mistrust, but on a much larger scale. Wave of Terror is a curious unfinished novel about Ivan Kulik, a school principal in the Pinsk Marshes in 1939, the end of the height of the Stalin-era Great Terror. The novel covers lots of political and cultural territory as Kulik observes boorish local bureaucrats, falls for a co-worker’s lovely cousin, and tries to hold his life together despite the terror around and, increasingly, inside him. I thought the book’s touches of absurdity, such as uneducated educators and ridiculous language policies, were particularly apt because they reflect the times.

Erma Odrach (who is a friend on Goodreads) writes in her translator’s note that her father’s manuscript and drafts included “countless corrections and revisions in the margins.” Erma says she incorporated them into the translation, “to provide a broader and more comprehensive representation of his work.” Though Wave of Terror feels a little bumpy – which is to be expected with any unfinished novel – I think Erma’s handling of the material works. Perhaps that’s because the time itself was such a work in progress and thinking people, like Kulik, felt so physically and psychically unsettled. In any case, I came away from Wave of Terror with the feeling that I’d like to read more of Odrach’s work.

Up next: Maybe Matt Haig’s The Radleys? I’m scanning my stacks for a humorous book and am a sucker for a vampire story, though don’t think I’ve read one in years… other than the first half of Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch.

Photo of HUAC hearing (1947) from user Ted Wilkes, via Wikipedia.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Extraordinary Renditions in Ervin’s Budapest

Andrew Ervin’s Extraordinary Renditions is a troika of long stories linked by location and theme: all three pieces take place in or around Independence Day celebrations in Budapest. The stories’ main American characters – a Hungarian-born composer, a soldier, and an expat violinist – are unevenly drawn but give the book three perspectives on political and artistic freedoms.

I think the first installment, “14 Bagatelles,” featuring composer Lajos Harkályi, is the most interesting, with its depiction of removal from one’s birthplace: Harkályi spent time at the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp as a child, survived by luck, and rarely returns to Hungary. Harkályi, who is visiting Budapest for the premiere of an opera he wrote, is a little grumpy, perceiving TV as a sewer (as a TV-less person, I loved this!) and disliking hearing someone hum the theme of one of his symphonies.

In “14 Bagatelles” Ervin offers diverse bits of Budapest atmosphere: a street vendor selling flowers, local drink in a bar, diesel fumes, the subway, and a skinhead attack. The attack’s victim is Brutus, a black U.S. soldier who becomes the primary character in “Brooking the Devil,” the middle piece in Extraordinary Renditions. Brutus’s story is related to the most literal extraordinary renditions in the book since his base is involved in the War on Terror. Brutus is bitter about the military, and I wonder if Ervin included Brutus’s interest in Julius Caesar to reference Hungarian history, which included a period of Roman occupation. I thought Brutus’s chunk of the book was the least convincing, with too many details about routine and gratuitous references to Philadelphia… even if the Declaration of Independence was signed there.

Brutus winds up in Budapest on a terrible errand that brings him to the same bar where the reader meets Melanie, the expat violinist, and her controlling roommate in “The Empty Chairs.” Though I thought Ervin invested too many words in their drinking and relationship, the self-doubting Melanie steals two shows: her fantastically spontaneous actions during the performance of Harkályi’s opera premiere have a tremendous effect on Harkályi and the audience, injecting unexpected emotion into the book itself and transforming the reading experience. Ervin’s performance is as spectacular and unexpected as Melanie’s, as he describes artistic inspiration that results in a truly extraordinary rendition of a musical score.

What links the three stories is freedom – it’s Independence Day, after all – and the urges the characters feel to escape from regimented environments, be they Nazi occupation, the military, or sheet music. Though I thought the book was uneven and sometimes slightly marred by unnecessary exposition (details), it’s well worth reading thanks to Ervin’s ability to use his energy and independence to create disparate stories that fit together as something like a novel.

Disclosure: Thank you to Amy of The Black Sheep Dances for another hand-me-down review copy! She received Extraordinary Renditions from Coffee House Press.

Up Next: Odds and ends after a strange stretch of reading…

Image Credit: Budapest Jewish WWII Memorial Shoes on River Bank, from Csörföly, via Wikipedia.